Before reading this review, it be best noted that the writer’s mother passed away from Alzheimer’s. The film thus hits more than a number of soft spots, and though WHAT THEY HAD a film about a mother with the decease is occasionally flawed, the film kept me at most parts in tears.
Playwright and theatre actress Elizabeth Chomko delivers a gut wrenching directorial debut with her award winning screenplay. The film is fortunate to have four top notch actors delivering unforgettable performances – Hilary Swank and Michael Shannon playing duelling siblings trying their utmost best to look after their parents, Robert Forster playing the father looking after his dementia stricken wife played by Blythe Danner.
The film’s plot can be summed up simply with a few lines tut it is the drama and details that create the movie (i.e. the writing and direction). Bridget (Hilary Swank) returns home at her brother Nicki’s (Michael Shannon) urging to deal with her ailing mother, Ruth (Blythe Danner) and her father Burt’s (Robert Forster) reluctance to let go of their life together.
The film fails to identify the ugly aspects of living with the disease. For example, my mother did not shower for 8 months before I discovered it and and to get a caregiver come into help her shower weekly. And still, every week she would forget and we and to literally drag her to the bathroom. She would also do her number two before reaching the toilet and not remember about it a day after. The film also never showed at any point Burt’s loss of patience over his wife’s forgetfulness.
The drama works as the script offers each of the family’s point of view on the problem. And each member is right and has sacrificed in her or his own way. There is no one correct solution. As the Burt character talks about love: “You find someone you can commit to, and then you work at it.” This line is also true even if you one finds ones soulmate or love at first sight. One has to work at it. The film contains many dramatic sets-ups with excellent dialogue and tearful moments.
The script shows its occasional brilliance. One is the use of the scenario of the dementia-ridden mother hitting on Nicki, her son. The incident is first milked for laughs and then the same one for sympathy.
One might complain that the film tugs too are at the heartstrings. The Christmas setting adds on to the sentiment especially in the exchanging of gifts scenes. But audiences love a good cry just as a good laugh at the movies.
Two-time Oscar Winner Hilary Swank (MILLION DOLLAR BABY and BOYS DON’T CRY) who not only stars in the film but co-produced it is known to make films about subjects that matter. They might have been successful such as in BOYS DON’T CRY about LGBT rights or less successful such as in FREEDOM FIGHTERS about at-risk students. WHAT THEY HAD is an earnest and sincere film about a subject every human beings will face in their families at one time or other, sooner of later.